Amazon warehouse workers have a long history of agitating for change. But the coronavirus crisis has generated new momentum for employees to speak candidly about workplace conditions.
Since March, employees have held protests to demand safer working conditions, created online petitions to draw attention to their concerns and formed new worker groups. The surge of employee activism has raised the question of whether labor unions might try to seize the moment to organize Amazon workers.
Between March and September, the company employed more than 1.37 million front-line Amazon and Whole Foods workers in the U.S. That number doesn't include the tens of thousands of contracted drivers who are responsible for Amazon's last-mile deliveries.
Unionizing Amazon's workforce would be an uphill battle. The company has managed to head off major labor unions since its founding in 1994. Labor unions have organized some of Amazon's European workforce, but no U.S. facility has successfully formed or joined a union.
"Amazon has always been actively trying to dissuade employees from organizing unions," said Marcus Courtney, a longtime labor advocate who attempted to unionize call center workers at Amazon in the early 2000s. "That was true 20 years ago and it's true today."
Unions stand to disrupt the level of control that Amazon has over its warehouse and delivery employees, like their ability to unilaterally set the pace of work and hourly wages, said Tom Kochan, a professor of industrial relations, work and employment at MIT.
"Amazon controls everything from bathroom breaks to communication with other employees," Kochan said. "If a union comes in, they're going to lose some of that control and that's ultimately what they fear most."
A string of recent events shows the extent of Amazon's efforts to avoid unions and track workplace unrest.
CNBC previously reported that Amazon posted a job listing for two intelligence analysts who could monitor "labor organizing threats" and other sensitive topics, and report their findings to "internal stakeholders, up to and including executive leadership." Amazon later deleted the job listings and said the job descriptions were inaccurate.
Amazon attracted further scrutiny earlier this month after Recode reported that it sought staffing and funds to buy software that would help it better analyze and visualize data on unions, called the geoSPatial Operating Console, or SPOC. In September, Vice reported that Amazon's HR department appeared to be monitoring employee listservs that were hotspots for employee activism. A separate Vice report found Amazon corporate employees were monitoring closed Facebook groups used by contracted Flex drivers to track planned strikes and organizing activity.
Amazon has denied that these programs were designed for detecting and curbing union activity. But despite its assurances, some warehouse workers say they view surveillance and the potential for retribution as a threat to unionization efforts.
Politicians, labor unions and workers rights groups also remain skeptical of the company's views on employee organizing. Last week, senators including Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos seeking more information about the steps Amazon takes when it becomes aware of an active organizing campaign.
"The fact that Amazon has decided to heavily invest in systems to retaliate against freedom of expression about unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, and to refer to organizing efforts as threats against the company equal to those posed by hate groups and terrorism, is unacceptable," the senators wrote. "Labor organizing campaigns are a legally protected activity."
When asked its stance on unions, Amazon has previously pointed to the rapid pace of innovation in its warehouses and the importance of direct communication between managers and employees, both of which might be impacted by a unionized workforce.
Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski told CNBC in a statement that the company respects workers' right to join or not join a union.
"Across Amazon, including in our operations facilities, we place enormous value on having daily conversations with each associate and work to make sure direct engagement with our employees is a strong part of our work culture," she added.
Amazon also offered interviews with several warehouse workers who said they did not want to join a union.
"For me, I've been here almost four years and that's not something that I want," said Abdirizak Abdi, a process assistant at Amazon's Shakopee, Minnesota, warehouse. "I'm really happy and enjoying the atmosphere and what they do for our customers and our associates too."
Allison Clawson, who's also a process assistant at the Shakopee facility, agreed with Abdi and said the company encourages workers to voice their concerns with managers, particularly through the "Voice of the Associate" whiteboard in the workplace.
"I have never met a manager that has never made time to talk to me if I had expressed a concern or asked if they had time to talk," Clawson added.
When asked about the purpose of the SPOC tool, Levandowski said Amazon sought funding for software that enables geospatial mapping, which would allow the company to look at various events happening outside its buildings, such as large gatherings, natural disasters and power outages, and weigh how they'd impact employees.
Levandowski didn't say whether Amazon monitors potential union activity in email communications or whether it would track such activity via the SPOC tool. The company uses open email forums and other methods to gather employee feedback at scale, she said. Amazon stopped aggregating information from closed Facebook groups, like what was detailed in the Vice report, after it learned one business unit was doing so, Levandowski said.
"That approach doesn't meet our standards," she added.
Amazon isn't the only big business that has developed robust strategies for monitoring employee dissent. Walmart, the world's largest private employer, has also been accused of monitoring employee discussions on Reddit. Employees at fellow tech giant Google previously alleged the company created a tool to flag possible organizing activity.
But Amazon has developed a reputation among union organizers as being particularly aggressive.
"Walmart did get a lot of heat for its labor practices, but I think it has been supplanted by Amazon," said Iain Gold, a director with the Teamsters, which is one of several major labor unions that has engaged with Amazon warehouse and delivery workers. "Amazon has taken spying on workers and trying to understand workforce behavioral trends or predilections to the next level."
Some forms of surveillance are acceptable under the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law that protects employees' right to organize and prevents private corporations from engaging in unfair labor practices. For example, companies can monitor email communications in the workplace. Collecting data to head off union organizing before it happens is "frankly just good business," said Jeff Wilson, litigation director at law firm Young Basile.
But some tactics are considered unlawful, like creating the impression of surveillance for the purpose of chilling attempts at unionizing or spying on private Facebook chats, Wilson said.
"The surveillance itself is not an NLRA violation, but it's how the employer executes and implements that policy where things could cross the line," Wilson said.
Other surveillance tactics, like reports of Amazon's Whole Foods creating a union tracking system, are just one of the ways "sophisticated employers" have gotten more adept at squashing union activity, Kochan said.
"They will hire not only lawyers but anti-union consultants," Kochan said. "They'll invest in videos to emphasize how strongly they're opposed to union organizing. It's very difficult for a union to overcome that."
Courtney said he witnessed some of these tactics two decades ago, when he and a division of the Communications Workers of America helped launch a campaign to organize hundreds of Amazon's customer service workers in Seattle. Amazon later closed the call center where the employees worked as part of a broader restructuring.
Before Courtney became involved in the unionization effort at Amazon, he also attempted to organize Microsoft contract workers in the 1990s. Courtney said he felt Microsoft was "more hands off" during the process, while Amazon appeared to adopt the anti-union tactics that were common in old-line industrial facilities.
Amid the unionization effort, Amazon created a website for managers laying out warning signs that workers are trying to organize. It also held regular meetings to argue why unionization would be bad for business.
"I think Amazon took a much more active and proactive role in trying to dissuade workers from joining which was unusual at the time in the technology industry," Courtney said. "A lot of the stuff we're seeing today is just the growth of what was happening back then."
Some workers inside Amazon and at gig economy companies like Instacart and Target's Shipt have migrated their organizing activity online to get the privacy and anonymity that's not always possible on the shop floor or in the break room. Facebook groups and encrypted chat apps such as Signal and Telegram have become increasingly popular tools for employee activism both during and before the pandemic.
John Hopkins, who works at Amazon's San Leandro, California distribution center, is trying to unionize his workplace with digital tools. Hopkins has been an outspoken critic of Amazon's labor practices and, earlier this year, helped launch Bay Area Amazonians, an employee group that aims to secure safer working conditions at the company.
Hopkins is creating a new online organizing platform on Zoom's Keybase, an end-to-end encryption and security service that also offers secure messaging and file sharing. To use the platform, workers will have to create a decentralized identifier, similar to a bitcoin address, that's recognizable to others who've joined the network but appears anonymous to anyone who isn't authorized.
Eventually, Hopkins hopes that his coworkers will be able to use the platform to sign a union authorization card digitally — a practice the National Labor Relations Board began allowing in 2015.
Hopkins said he was partly motivated to create a new platform because other online employee groups don't always feel like a safe place for open discussion about unionizing.
"If you go on the Facebook forums, there are so many conversations where you'll start to have the beginnings of an interesting discussion, and then somebody will come in and remind everyone that you're not really safe," Hopkins said. "And so it chills discussion without [Amazon] even having to actually go through with it."
The goal is to give warehouse workers confidence that they have control over their information, Hopkins said. He acknowledged that it will take some time to educate coworkers on how the system works, but he remains optimistic that there will be a willingness to learn.
"One of the things that frustrates me is that it very much feels like there is an assumption that folks in the warehouses are uneducated and that's not the case in my experience," Hopkins said. "I'm honestly not taking the perspective that any of this is too complicated for workers to grasp."